Petr Lavrovich Lavrov

Lavrov, Petr Lavrovich


(pseudonym of Petr Lavrovich Mirtov). Born June 2 (14), 1823, in Melekhovo, present-day Pskov Raion, Pskov Oblast; died Jan. 25 (Feb. 6), 1900, in Paris. Theoretician of Russian revolutionary populism. Philosopher; publicist; sociologist. Born into a pomeshchik (landlord) family.

In 1842, Lavrov graduated from an artillery school in St. Petersburg. He taught mathematics at military schools in St. Petersburg from 1844 to 1866. In 1858 he received the rank of colonel. Lavrov began to publish articles on military technology and on the natural sciences in 1852. In 1857 he began his career as a publicist. His antigovernment poetry was printed in Her-zen’s Kolokol. From the late 1850’s he wrote articles on pedagogy, philosophy, and the history of the physical and mathematical sciences. In 1861 he gave a speech at a student meeting at the university and signed public protests against the arrest of M. L. Mikhailov, against the reactionary draft of a university charter, and against the baiting of students in the press.

Lavrov became a good friend of N. G. Chernyshevskii in 1862 and joined the secret revolutionary society Zemlia i Volia (Land and Freedom). From 1863 to 1866 he secretly served as editor of Zagranichnyi vestnik After D. V. Karakozov shot at the tsar in 1866, Lavrov was arrested, tried by a military court, and banished to Vologda Province in 1867. There he wrote the work Historical Letters. With the aid of G. A. Lopatin, he fled from exile in February 1870, arriving in Paris in March. On the recommendation of L. Varlaine, a figure in the French workers’ movement, he joined the First International in the autumn of 1870.

Lavrov participated in the Paris Commune of 1871. In May 1871 he went on a mission for the Commune to London, where he became friends with Marx and Engels. From 1873 to 1876, Lavrov was editor of the journal and the newspaper Vpered! (published in Zürich and London), which became the organs of the Russian revolutionary movement, as well as the tribunes of the international workers’ and socialist movement. Lavrov moved in 1877 from London to Paris, where he organized a Russian-Polish revolutionary circle (1878) and established ties with the Warsaw socialist underground and the Russian organizations Black Repartition and the People’s Will, taking it upon himself to represent the latter abroad.

Lavrov was one of the initiators of meetings of various factions of Russian revolutionary émigrés (late 1880 to early 1881) to discuss questions of socialist theory and “the practical actions of the Russian socialists in Russia.” He was one of the organizers of the People’s Will publication Russkaia sotsial’no-revoliutsionnaia biblioteka (1880–82) and of the People’s Will Red Cross outside Russia (1882). He and L. A. Tikhomirov were the editors of the Vestnik Narodnoi voli (1883–86). Lavrov helped to found the Socialist Library of the Zürich Socialist Literary Fund (1889) and the Group of Old Members of the People’s Will. From the 1870’s through the 1890’s he maintained ties with representatives of the German, French, British, American, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Czech, Bulgarian, Rumanian, and Scandinavian revolutionary movements, contributing to many of their publications. Lavrov’s works were published in a number of legal Russian newspapers and journals. (About 60 of his pseudonyms have been discovered.)

Lavrov, who was influenced by L. Feuerbach, defined his world view as anthropologism. He began to write on philosophy in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. In his works on Hegel (1858—59), including Studies on Questions of Practical Philosophy: Personality (1860) and Three Conversations on the Contemporary Meaning of Philosophy … (1861), he offered a critique of religion and mystical forms of idealism, drawing heavily on the rationalist tradition in philosophy. He also showed a predilection in these works for problems of personality in philosophy and sociology. He was opposed to the “extraordinarily one-sided passion for the natural sciences” which had arisen among Russian youth, largely under the influence of D. M. Pisarev. In Lavrov’s opinion, the main task of science was to reveal “the laws of morality, that is, the laws of social relations among people” and to give the young generation guidance so that it would “participate consciously in social life.” The product of his philosophical work during this period was the well-known Historical Letters (1868–69; separate edition, 1870). In this book he reworked the theoretical concepts of Proudhon, A. Comte, H. Spencer, and other philosophers, analyzing such terms as “history,” “progress,” “culture,” “civilization,” “the ideal,” “the state,” and “the nation.”

According to Lavrov, the beginning of man’s history is linked to the appearance in the savage, on a purely physiological basis, of “a conscious striving toward progress.” The distinction between “culture” and “civilization” is important in Lavrov’s theory of progress. “Culture” refers to the social milieu connected with rigidified forms of life that are reproduced in conformity with custom. “Civilization” is the progressive movement of social forms—the succession of different phases of culture which occurs under the influence of critical thought. “Thought is the only agent imparting human dignity to social culture” (Izbr. soch. na sotsial’no-politich. temy, vol. 1, 1934, p. 244). Insofar as “thought is real only in the personality” (ibid., p. 245), the motive force of progress is the intelligentsia—a small group of individuals who are capable of taking pleasure in development and elaborating the necessity for it. The initial progress of this minority was bought by “the enslavement of the majority” (the “price of progress”). However, the intelligentsia pays its debt to the people by “extending, to the best of its ability, the comforts of life, as well as intellectual and moral development, to the majority; by bringing scientific understanding and justice to social forms” (ibid, p. 227).

As defined by Lavrov, progress is “the development of the individual physically, mentally, and morally, the embodiment of truth and justice in social forms” (ibid., p. 199). On this ethical foundation he erected his socialist ideal: “the demand for solidarity of all of humanity” (ibid., vol. 4, 1935, p. 107). According to him, the future socialist system will realize the harmony of the individual and of social principles in history. Stressing the differences in principle between social and natural phenomena, Lavrov believed that inasmuch as history is distinguished by development, or progress, finding the law of historical development entails revealing the “normal order” of the nonrecurrent “phases of evolution.” The establishment of the correct perspective on historical facts and the elucidation of their meaning depends, according to Lavrov, on the historian himself. Thus, in sociology he advocated a subjective method that would deny the existence of objective material criteria for defining the direction of social development (ibid., vol. 1, pp. 189, 190, 391).

Despite its subjective, idealist character, Lavrov’s sociology played a progressive role in Russia, where it became the theoretical foundation for the activity of many revolutionary Narodniki (Populists). The idea of the active influence of consciousness on the course of history, the theory of the “unpaid debt” of the intelligentsia to the people, and the appeal for the reorganization of society on the basis of the principles of “truth and justice” were adopted by the young revolutionaries as a slogan for the overthrow of the unjust social system and the creation of a revolutionary party based on an alliance of the progressive intelligentsia and the people. Under Marx’ influence, Lavrov modified his conception of the historical process somewhat. In his later works socialism is viewed not only as a moral ideal worked out by a thinking minority but also as “the inevitable result of the contemporary process of economic life.” Lavrov expressed many valuable thoughts in the work The State Element in the Future Society (1876), which poses the problems of the gradual withering away of the state under socialism and of guarantees against the usurpation of power by individuals. Arguing at an earlier point in his career against the Russian followers of L. Blanqui, Lavrov had categorically opposed the revolutionary dictatorship, but during the 1870’s he reluctantly recognized that it was necessary. The state under socialism is conceivable only as a dictatorship of the majority, and its preservation is only a temporary measure. Under mature socialism, however, no person is governed by another “in the sense that one individual has compulsory power over another.” Like Marx, Lavrov considered the Paris Commune of 1871 the model of the socialist state.

As a theoretician, Lavrov was outstanding for his criticism of revolutionary adventurism. Expressing his opposition to the anarchist M. A. Bakunin, he pointed out that history should not be “hurried along” by means of artificially provoked revolutions before the propagandizing of socialist doctrine among the toiling people and the careful theoretical and moral preparation of revolutionaries have been fruitful. He also opposed the conspiratorial tactics of P. N. Tkachev: “We do not want a new regime of force to replace the old one, whatever its source. The future structure of Russian society … should embody in practice the needs of the majority, which they are conscious of and understand” (ibid., vol. 4, p. 31).

Lavrov’s significance in the history of social thought is extremely ambivalent. His philosophical works of the 1850’s and 1860’s were, in a sense, the link between the materialism of Chernyshevskii and other figures of the 1860’s and the neo-Kantianism and subjectivism of Mikhailovskii. In sociology, he polemicized against historical fatalism, elaborating on the subjective factor in history, which, however, he overestimated. Marx’ influence is noticeable in Lavrov’s works of the 1870’s and 1880’s. However, the foundation of Lavrov’s concepts was not altered by their “supplementation” with elements of “economic materialism.” Lavrov’s emphasis on the international character of the revolutionary struggle and on the importance of Marxian scientific socialism eased the transition to social democracy for some of his followers. However, guided by the idea of gradual preparation for revolution, a number of Lavrov’s followers withdrew from revolutionary activity and became self-styled “upholders of civilization.” Lavrov repudiated this trend. Lavrov’s erroneous ideas were criticized by G. V. Plekhanov and V. I. Lenin.


Sobr. soch., series 1, 3–6. Petrograd, 1917–20. (Incomplete.)

Izbr. soch. na sotsial’no-politicheskie temy, vols. 1–4. Moscow, 1934–35. (Unfinished; contains a bibliography.)

Filosofiia i sotsiologiia, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1965. [“Stikhi”.] In Vol’naia russkaia poeziia vtoroi poloviny XIX v. Leningrad, 1959.


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